This essay was originally published on The Spinoff on 29 November 2016.
On the day my daughter turned three, a man gave me a chopping board. It was a lovely chopping board, made from caramel-coloured blocks of recycled rimu that had been glued together and clamped in a vice. The man had made it himself. He brought it over to my house in the afternoon, along with a miniature Pinky bar for my daughter, Esther.
I met this man about five years ago, when I was first running for Parliament. He was the chair of the local peace group, and hosted a debate for the candidates. Later he became a dedicated campaign volunteer. He was kind and generous, and donated several of his chopping boards to fundraising auctions. After I left Parliament, earlier than I had planned, he asked if he could gift me one as a token of support and appreciation. It took me almost three years to follow up and accept his offer.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want it, though we did have three other chopping boards already. Two were wedding presents, building blocks of our joint kitchen. One was a birthday gift from my stepfather about two years ago. That one was made from a slice of fallen pohutukawa tree blown over in the wind on Great Barrier Island. We used to be good at taking care of them, oiling them regularly along with our cast iron pans, but slowly we fell out of the habit. After Esther was born and I left Parliament, things were hard. I was having trouble with anxiety, and my partner was suffering from chronic pain. Maintaining our possessions, and even making a time to receive a gift from a kind supporter, were low on the list of priorities.
We took the same approach to most of our responsibilities apart from keeping ourselves and Esther clean, fed, and showing up in the places we needed to be. That was enough – often it felt like too much. Our front fence, which is a retaining wall, is sagging and cracking. Each time there’s an earthquake in Wellington, it cracks a little more. In the big one the other day, a cinder block fell clean out.
There is a 1976 Mini Austin Clubman slowly rusting in a neighbour’s garage across the road. We bought it in the summer after I was elected to Parliament, with visions of me becoming ‘that MP lady with the little green car’. We drove it back from Kaiapoi while I memorised my maiden speech in the passenger seat. We meant to sell it three years ago, but we can’t seem to do it. Every three months we renew the registration, resigned.
Our house is called the Herb Cottage. The woman who lived there before us was a herbalist who operated a massage studio out the back. It smelled of lavender and calendula when we moved in. We knew she wanted someone to buy it who would take care of her herbs, so we wrote her a letter to that effect to accompany our offer. She accepted. Three years later, the garden runs wild. Fennel taller than us chokes the apple tree, nasturtiums spread across the lawn from every planter bed, and the garden seat her husband built has rotted and collapsed.
Inside the house, paper and books are piled on every surface. Esther’s odd socks are sprinkled through the house like seasoning. The cat luxuriates in piles of clean, unfolded washing. Sometimes I feel like we exist on the surface of our life. We get through each day, run the dishwasher, eat, and collapse into bed to do it all again. Dealing with longer-term projects seems impossible, overwhelming. So, we don’t. Most of the time I no longer feel guilty about this, recognising that survival is our primary aim. Most of the time I’m okay with that. But it’s hard.
The other day was a good day. A whole good day, from start to finish. All three of us woke refreshed. Dave cooked us a breakfast of mushrooms on toast. The sun was shining. We took a family outing to the new playground at Avalon Park. Dave slept in the warm sun while Esther and I explored. She was in her element, brave, adventurous, independent. We stayed for two and a half hours. I wish I could live here, she said to me as we left – but she left without complaint. We went to a café for lunch. She was dehydrated and hungry after her morning of playing in the sun, but she lasted. We came home. She didn’t fall asleep on the way. We watched a movie – Inside Out – to get through the post-lunch lull. She didn’t fall asleep then either. I painted her nails. She didn’t really get the movie, but she watched it anyway. “When I’m five I will know how to watch it,” she said. I cried, especially at the bit when Joy realises that she needs Sadness with her. That you can’t have one without the other.
Then Esther helped me make dinner. She had her own pan and little bits of each thing I was cooking, and she stirred and chatted away. The meal was ready early, and she ate it. Every last bit. Then she had a bath, read a story with Dave, a story with me. I turned out the light, sang her Pokarekare Ana, and she was out.
It was a day just like I thought every day as a parent would be but which so few of them are. A day in which Dave and I were both present, and relaxed. A day in which Esther had fun, and all her needs were met. In which we rested, ate well, and took care of each other.
After dinner I drank a glass of wine and oiled the chopping boards, all four of them. They came up just fine.